La Paz and the Death Road

Bolivia is an interesting place.  Unlike most of the rest of South America, it has a predominantly native population throughout – most of the rest of South America has a much higher proportion of Latinos (European ancestry) and mestizos (mixed European and native ancestry) than does Bolivia.  I’m sure I’ve been told several times that it’s the only country in South America with a non-Latino head of state, too – though I can’t claim I actually know whether that’s true.  Through most of South America, the Latinos and mestizos tend to be better-off, and more centred in urban areas, and the natives tend to be poor and rural.  This is very much the case in Peru, for example, with a very obvious ethnic divide between Lima and, say, Iquitos or Cusco.

Perhaps Bolivia is where this difference is most clearly illustrated at a country level:  as a country-wide generalisation, it’s overwhelmingly populated by people who are both native and poor.  It’s perhaps South America’s least developed country.  For the tourist, this means two things:  it’s cheap (yay!) and it’s harder to get around safely and reliably (boo!).

For lack of many other interesting photos, here’s a weirdo statue I spotted out the bus window in La Paz one afternoon

For lack of many other interesting photos, here’s a weirdo statue I spotted out the bus window in La Paz one afternoon

We came to Bolivia after our Machu Picchu trip, and really our only major plan was to see the famous Uyuni salt flats.  (Bolivia’s other main tourism drawcard is the Amazon jungle, but we’d already done that in Iquitos, Peru, so we weren’t so interested in going to the effort of doing it again here, as fantastic as it had been the first time around.)  We allowed ourselves a couple of weeks, knowing that there was a significant possibility of transport delays (aka less than trustworthy buses), and wanting to make sure that we minimised the risk of missing our flight to Argentina on March 20.

We started and ended our Bolivian travels in La Paz – and having left ourselves that buffer time and in the end not needed it, we actually had a decent amount of time to kill there.

La Paz’s claim to fame is that it’s the highest capital city in the world.  It’s kind of a bullshit claim to fame, because although it’s where most of Bolivia’s government is, actually La Paz is not legally the capital of Bolivia:  Sucre is.  Hence the weasel words when La Paz is described as the world’s highest “administrative capital” or the world’s highest “de facto capital”.

Still, the point is it’s pretty high.  Its airport, technically in the neighbouring city of El Alto, is even higher.  Entertainingly, at over 4,100m, El Alto is actually higher than the effective altitude of normal cabin pressure on a passenger jet.  This is most entertaining when you fly out:  the 2L water bottle I carried onto the plane kept imploding from take-off until we reached our cruising altitude at around 12,000m, since after take-off the plane will actually be increasing the cabin pressure to reach normal levels.  (Landing in Lima the difference was noticeable too.  After spending two weeks in Bolivia – all of it in the highlands – breathing felt like drinking oxygen soup.  Very invigorating!)

Anyway, La Paz…

As I say, we spent a decent chunk of time there, but to be honest, we didn’t do all that much with it.  Recent travel had been hectic, and we appreciated some time not doing a whole heap.  We caught up on sleep and washing.  We enjoyed good food – fairly easy to do when even the budget Western traveller can take their pick of some of the country’s pricier restaurants.  And we spent some time figuring out what the hell we were going to do once we got to Argentina.

A section of El Camino de la Muerte (aka the Death Road)

A section of El Camino de la Muerte (aka the Death Road)

As far as, y’know, actually doing something in the place we’d expended money and effort to get to goes, our main goal was to cycle the Death Road – aka El Camino de la Muerte.  It’s a winding cliff-sided road down through the mountains near La Paz, and it’s famous for the number of fatalities it used to cause when it was the main route between its source and destination.  (They built a safer bypass years ago, so now although the road is still in use by the few locals who live along it, its primary users these days are tourists like us.)

Before it became a tourist attraction, it had turned out that having trucks and buses passing with only centimetres of clearance on a poorly-maintained road with a vertical drop-off on one side was not as conducive to road safety as would be ideal – hence the road’s reputation.

More of the Death Road

More of the Death Road

Even now, it’s still a regular – if much less frequent – cause of tourist casualties.  But at this point I should quickly get in a “don’t worry, Mum”:  while it’s true that a number of tourists have still died while cycling down it in recent years, a bit of asking around quickly leads to the conclusion that in every case, this was a result of someone doing something stupid and riding well beyond their ability.

In any case, the ride starts early and high – very very high, at around 5000m above sea level, if I remember rightly.  At that time of day, there was a tonne of cloud about, making for some beautiful scenes of the road disappearing off into the mist.  As you slowly – or quickly, depending on your levels of confidence and recklessness – make your way down (your altitude by the end is only about 1500m above sea level, so there’s quite the drop in store!), the mist lifts, and the cold makes way for sweaty, humid heat.  But the views down the valley remain beautiful throughout, and the dirt and gravel road remains entertaining to ride the whole way.  The roadside waterfalls help with the heat, too:  especially on those occasions when they’re not so much “roadside” as “water falling onto the road”.

Cycling off into the mist on the Death Road

Cycling off into the mist on the Death Road

On a recommendation from a traveller we’d befriended earlier in our travels, we found a reputable and not unreasonably-priced tour company, hired our mountain bikes, and thoroughly enjoyed our ride down the hill, arriving unhurt with neither Chris nor I having had any incidents.

With only four people in our group (we were very lucky:  the previous day had been a busy one for our guides, with thirty-odd people doing that same thing with the same company!), it was a fantastic day.  Fun mountain-biking, picturesque views, and a nice leisurely beer or three at the bottom.

A waterfall falls directly onto the road on the Death Road

A waterfall falls directly onto the road on the Death Road

(For anyone wanting to cycle the Death Road themselves, we went with Barracuda Biking.  I’ve recommended them to several others since, and had satisfactory reports back from those who have been trusting enough to take my word for it.  Your main concern evaluating an outfit is obviously the quality of their bikes – Barracuda’s are not new, but instead are good condition hand-me-downs from their much more expensive sister company.  The bikes are only a couple of years old, and most importantly, they’re well maintained.  Regardless of who you’re with, though, you want to have a very careful look at the brakes of whatever bike you end up on.  It’s all downhill, so if your gears aren’t perfect, that’s not a problem – you’ll hardly be doing any pedalling anyway.  But you’ll be using a lot of brakes, sometimes pretty hard, so you need ones that can take a bit of punishment.)

Besides that bike trip, though, there wasn’t much about La Paz to really get our pulses racing.

And it has to be said that a lot of the time La Paz isn’t necessarily a hugely pleasant city.  I don’t have a problem with the fact that it’s a poor city in a poor country – Bolivia is another data point bolstering the apparent correlation between poor countries and friendly, outgoing locals.  But that said, the level of substance abuse amongst those on the street was a particularly ugly side to the poverty:  wandering out to dinner at 8pm on a Sunday night, it did look remarkably like the national drink might be some kind of industrial solvent (admittedly it was St Patrick’s Day, although somehow I doubt that was the inspiration).

Aside from the Death Road, the other two noted tourist attractions are the Witches’ Market and the San Pedro prison.

Dried llama foetuses for sale in the Witches’ Market

Dried llama foetuses for sale in the Witches’ Market

The Witches’ Market is your run-of-the-mill street market, but includes a few slightly more bizarre products in most of the stalls:  embalmed llama foetuses, primarily.  That’s a bit odd, definitely.  Apparently they’re there because of an old superstition that has them ceremonially buried for good luck when christening (well, obviously not ‘christening’, but you know what I mean) a new building.  Though for all I know, they’re there because snap-happy tourists find them entertaining.

The San Pedro prison is famous not just as a really particularly corrupt version of corrupt third-world prisons (it was one with a fully functioning internal economy, where prisoners had to buy their rooms – which weren’t really cells – etc), but as one which a certain Westerner imprisoned there used to exhibit (by bribing guards, etc) by guiding tourists through.  You used to be able to pay him money to stay overnight in the prison, in his room.  If you want to, you can read his story about it in Marching Powder, a book which I saw gestured to on many an ereader during my conversations with other tourists in and near Bolivia.  (I subsequently read it, although I was perhaps a little less shocked by its content than I expected to be, given other people’s reactions to it.  Gee golly, it turns out there’s a lot of corruption in a prison in a very poor country, and that that corruption means that the prison functions very differently from those in more, err, well-regulated countries.  Who’da thought?)

Anyway, we didn’t bother to visit the prison – the tours a la the book no longer exist, and while others have sprung up, they’re not exactly a great idea (tour-takers who spend a night within the prison walls these days are typically doing it not of their own free will:  there have been a few kidnappings and other unpleasantnesses reported in the last few years).

Kind of an anti-climax to end on for La Paz there:  something that we didn’t do.  (Woohoo, great blog you’ve got here, Sam!  Real fascinating.)  Oh well.  The fun stuff in Bolivia was always going to be the Uyuni Salt Flats, and you’ll have to wait for the next post to get to that.  And the anti-climax kinda sums up La Paz a bit for me anyway, so, really, I’m gonna call it even.

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One thought on “La Paz and the Death Road

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